You have to poke out the eyes of painters like you do with songbirds, to make them sing better. – Picasso
The Beaubourg advertises its current exposition of cubist artworks as the most comprehensive show of its kind in Paris since 1953. How time flies. Well, I had to see this, so I bought some tix and went with my inlaws, who were in town. First things first: we had to eat. And drink, which we did sitting in the restaurant on the top of the museum – up, is it six or seven stories? In New York City, this would be nothing – we’d be face to face with the back of some mirror windowed business headquarters – but in Paris this gives you quite a view. I could see, a long way off, the Eiffel Tower, rather wobbly in a cloud. The day was misty and drizzly. To the left arose one of my favorite fragments of old Paris, the Tour Saint-Jacques, and beyond that, a little more in the headtwisting direction, Notre Dame. The buildings below us extended in yellow squares and rectangles – very, as it were, cubist. There was a famous exchange between Picasso and Gertrude Stein over Picasso’s portrait of her. Stein pointed out that the portrait didn’t look a thing like here, and Picasso said, it will. Picasso had a strong faith that life bends towards art – and he could see the proof of it all around him the streets of Paris. Life, that thing we have taken from the country, is more like the raw material of art than its opposite. This is a theory that reverses the whole romantic pastoral. That reversal was just one of many brought about by the cultural explosions of the first twenty years of the twentieth century.
After we had a bottle of wine and an excellent lunch, we set out and launched ourselves into the exposition. Indeed, it was as enormous as promised. I am certainly going to have to go back. But here’s a few impressions.
The first two rooms were dedicated, respectively, to Gauguin and Cezanne. The Gauguin was a slightly surprising choice. Gauguin was certainly the adventurer among the post-impressionists. He was a seeker of the Rousseauian raw, whether of Breton peasants or of the idols of Tahiti. In that, he did touch on the roots of Western art – with its always ambiguous relation with the idol, the fetish, the misplaced worship of the image as the thing itself, the face of God. We – or at least those of us who are thoroughly secularized – have lost our sense of the intensity with which idols and idol-worship were rooted out for a thousand years in Europe, with worldwide consequences for, say, the New World nations (the conquistadors and their followers, the inquisition) and for Africa. Gauguin is, of course, painting within a colonialist context, a context we still live in. This context is usually considered from the standpoint of what the Europeans or the North Americans did outside of their regions – how they went out and “explored” and conquered other lands and peoples. But within that current there was another one, a reverse current, that brought the Other into Europe and America, brought back the idol and placed it in a museum, the heir of the cabinet of curiosities. But the power of the idol could not be so easily domesticated, as is brought home by making Gauguin one of the lares of modern art. Cezanne is placed here as the other – Cezanne, who was called primitive for being immanently rational, finding the blind angles of vision, the geometric planes, and pulling them out – making every face and tree a stack of cards.
What is missing, I think, is Seurat, since Seurat’s pointillism put the particle into the wave of impressionism. I believe it was Andre Salmon, the poet and friend of the cubists, who pointed out that Seurat and his comrade, Signac, were important for them.
And then the dam bursts. The walls overwhelm us with the cultural explosion of that period of miracles between 1905-1914.All of them are here: Braque, Leger, Delauney, Gleizes, Picabia, Gris, Duchamp, etc. And of course Picasso. Picasso everywhere. The Picassos run through this show like the Hell’s Angels through a rock concert. When you get up close and try to take in, say, something that is a major work by, say, Albert Gleizes, you can see it, you can follow its twists, you can appreciate it, but you still almost hear the Picassos in the background, revving their motors. It must have been a little maddening for all the guys and gals – there were some gals, who suffer from being eclipsed by all the testosterone – passing through the Bateau Lavoir that Picasso was making all these grand moves.
These paintings, as the poets recognized – Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Reverdy – were not just turning the page on a certain perspectival tradition in painting coming down from Vitruvius and through even the impressionists – they were turning the page on culture itself. Apollinaire spotted this right away – this wasn’t a school of painting, it was the Zeitgeist. And he took it up as a challenge to writing – you can see how the cubists, freeing up letters that were scavenged from street posters in their pictorial space, influenced Apollinaire’s own freeing up of words, not just in the Calligrammes but in the dropping of punctuation, the cutting up and pasting down of lines seemingly at random, the refusal to curb the lyric impulse within the bounds of grammar or implicature.
In a recent article in the Atlantic, two researchers surveyed scientists about the most basic discoveries since 1900. Then they graphed their responses by decade. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the 1910/1920 period and the 1960 period stand out as the decades in which the most fundamental changes were made. I think a similar survey would show, among artists and litterateurs, a similar concentration on those decades. The researches compared the times of discovery with the money dedicated to scientific work, and wondered why, as the amount of money increased exponentially, the innovation decreased – for there is a noticeable dropoff starting from 1980. I imagine the answer to that would require looking at more extensive changes in our socio-economic everyday. But it would be a mistake to separate those changes from the art – the art encoded and generated perspectival habits that were absorbed at all levels of modern society. You can’t look at a well designed website without finding traces of the cubist revolution – and the sum of other art work done in the period that reached its end in 1930.